‘There were times when I felt so ill I really did think I was going to die’
- Credit: Archant
Essex’s Sheila Wenborne on how the menopause ‘allowed me to become the real me’
“The menopause started as one of the most terrifying times in my life but it’s allowed me to become the real me,” says Sheila Wenborne. “It’s the single most positive time I’ve been able to define in my life; it’s certainly not the end... for me it’s just the beginning...”
With the number of females outnumbering men by a million in the UK, give or take, you’d have thought nothing would be off limits these days. Many women, reckons Sheila, still suffer in silence with the menopause. “It’s as if talking about the ‘M’ word is too embarrassing to discuss even with other women of the same age, let alone their male partners,” she says.
Sheila’s been there – remembering her shock at being told the menopause was the cause of being so “dizzy-headed, grumpy, fat, sexually redundant, liable to burst into tears at a drop of a hat and totally depressed all the time”.
She says: “I’d always considered myself young – I hadn’t noticed the years rolling by – but at the same time knowing what was really wrong with me was a great relief. There were times when I had felt so ill I really did think I was going to die or, at best, (be) committed to a mental institution.
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“Once I understood what the cause was, I then started to deal with the problem of how I was going to get my life back on track.”
Her thoughts and experiences have inspired a book aiming to smash the taboo and chart her journey back from the “dark side”.
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Sheila spoke to many women during her research. “I found that once I asked the question ‘How are you coping?’ the barriers went down, the floodgates opened and the stories flowed – some heartbreaking but most humorous.
“At the end of the session we all felt a sense of liberation at having lifted the taboo on the subject and, most importantly, knowing we were not alone in our plight.”
So... That’s why I’m Bonkers! A girl’s guide to surviving the menopause covers topics from “What is the menopause?” to the ways of dealing with symptoms, both clinically and holistically. It also offers advice on how to keep relationships alive. (“Despite all the horror stories, suggesting your nether regions will turn into prune-like relics of a forgotten youth, there is plenty to suggest that a decent sex life will resume.”)
The book is dedicated to husband Joe, “who has borne the brunt of my bad temper more than once; without him I would be lost”, and her mum, Pat, who has lived with the couple for the past 15 years and “who has always been a silent rock. She never ever complained about my mood swings, finding things in peculiar places or the freezing temperature of our home”.
Sheila, born in 1959, was heading towards 50 “and just a little bit grumpy” when she started waking – hot – at 3am. (Hot but not frisky, mind. “The thought of sex was about as exciting as doing a VAT return, only without the laughs.”) But she didn’t want to entertain thoughts of what was happening.
“I’d always been active and healthy, running a theatre business with my husband, Joe, but when I started feeling low I put it down to the fact we’d sold the business so I could concentrate on looking after my mother in law, who’d developed Alzheimer’s.” But it was, it seems, the peri-menopause – the lead-up to the full condition – when oestrogen levels start to drop, “with resulting symptoms that can be shocking to anyone who thought they might have a chance of ‘breezing through’ their middle years”.
She was working full out as a costume designer for the pantomime company. Maybe she was just tired – lacking in zinc, perhaps – and the symptoms would pass... But when a friend started suffering unexpected hot spells, Sheila knew she was not alone.
She also realised that whatever was going on was having an impact on her mind as well as her body. She had thoughts “that something was going but I couldn’t remember what...
“Thoughts like that would make me cry. Just as the John Lewis advert did at Christmas, and a soppy love song on the radio – and a squashed squirrel in the roadside”.
Eventually she saw a doctor and began taking HRT – hormone replacement therapy – but it didn’t work for her.
“No-one could get anywhere near me, my breasts were so sore, and I didn’t feel the benefit of increased hormones elsewhere. I decided it wasn’t for me, although I know there are many women who are now in their 70s and refusing to come off their medication because they feel so
good on it.”
We ran an article last year, explaining how a magnetic collar appeared to ease their border collie’s arthritis. Sheila thought magnetic therapy was worth a unt herself. “I bought a clip-on magnet to wear inside my knickers and within two weeks I felt better. My bloating had subsided, my mood swings had gone and I was laughing at Joe’s jokes again. Surely a miracle cure!”
She says that, like everything else, “it is a matter of sorting out what works for you...
“Often women start to help their symptoms with the natural approach, using herbs, vitamins, alternative treatments and products to improve their symptoms. Sometimes it is all they need and often only for a short while.
“The main thing is to seek advice from those people you trust and listen to what your body wants. If you think HRT will work and you want to give it a try, find out the risks for you – don’t listen to anyone who swears by it or hates it – and then make a decision. There isn’t one rule for all – it is important to do what is right for you.”
As well as the humour and information between its covers, the book contains much positivity. Sheila says: “Regardless of how we see the future, in terms of the here and now one of the biggest benefits to remember about the issues surrounding the menopause, such as hot flushes, tiredness, anxiety, etc., is that they tend to be temporary. They are just the body’s way of dealing with changes, and while irritating are rarely life-threatening.
“It is also a time when many women decide to re-evaluate what isn’t working in their lives. This can be routines, relationships and negativity.
“American anthropologist Margaret Mead called it ‘menopausal zest’ – an energy that women feel after the menopause which enables them to take stock of their lives.
“Many decide to take a fresh look at their relationships, their professions, the ways they’re caring for their own health, and the ways they want to expend their energy. It is a time to ask whether we are headed in the right direction – professionally and personally – and whether the way we’re spending our time is meaningful to us.”
Sheila’s paperback is £7.99. www.sheilawenborne.com
Here’s a selection of points from Sheila’s paperback So... That’s why I’m Bonkers!
In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause (the end of fertility, when the ovaries stop producing an egg every four weeks) is 51.
Some women, however, experience the menopause in their 30s or 40s.
The hot flush, usually accompanied by sweating, is said to be the most common symptom, experienced by more than 80% of women. Changes in hormone levels upset the temperature-regulating part of the brain.
Other common symptoms include weight gain and mood swings, “although it would be understandable that the mood swings come from the weight gain...” (A quip)
At the last count there were at least 35 different symptoms that have been, or can be, attributed to the menopause.
“Apart from the hot flushes, mood swings, vaginal dryness and murderous personalities, one of my friends spent three years investigating what she thought was a serious heart complaint (to the point she’d made a new Last Will and Testament and bought as much life insurance as she could without raising suspicion) until a specialist told her that all her palpitations and ‘missed beats’ were undoubtedly down to a lack of oestrogen.”
Sheila tackles some of the myths surrounding the menopause... such as “You’ll go off sex!”
“You only have to look at older women in the public eye to know that you don’t go off sex just because you’re a certain age. You might go off it for other reasons, of course. Lack of imagination, boredom and something good on the television might be enough to keep you off the boil – just as a bit of imagination and courtship can bring you straight back again!
“Although there are some issues in menopause, such as vaginal dryness and discomfort with sexual intercourse, a woman’s intimacy, bonding and sexual experiences can become more meaningful. A woman can feel, look and act sexy after menopause.”
She adds: “Although sex can be enjoyable at any age, the general message is that it is normal to experience a decrease in libido. But the fact is that sex is an important part of a relationship and, without it, intimacy can be compromised.
“So while you might go off the idea of sex because of some symptoms, these can be managed and ‘normal service resumed’ with a bit of thought and planning. If it continues, then discuss the matter with a doctor or health practitioner who might be able to recommend something to help.
Sheila the Daisy Picker!
Sheila was born in Brentwood in 1959
She wasn’t good at sport and, during rounders, would usually be sent to field far from the action. She’d daydream and pick daisies... until the ball came close. Soon, she became known as ‘Sheila the Daisy Picker’
She later worked as an administrator in an office
Sheila wanted to see the world. After luxury cruise lines and airlines told her she was too young, she became a “blue coat” entertainer at a Pontins holiday park in Dorset for a season
Later, she worked as an office ‘temp’. Dull...
One morning, boyfriend Joe rang to say he’d been offered a year’s contract as entertainment director for a chain of hotels in the Caribbean. There was a job for her if she wanted it. They travelled the world together
In 1990 they returned to the UK, co-founding a touring theatre company specialising in pantomime. Sheila designed scenery and costumes; Joe wrote scripts, composed music
They later married. Today, they live on the Dengie peninsula, near Maldon
They were so busy that the idea of a family drifted to the back of their minds. They thought that when the time was right it would naturally happen, but it was not to be.
They were consoled by the thought their shows had made many children happy
After her experiences with the menopause, Sheila launched her own magnet therapy and well-being company. She writes ‘...it is thought that they stimulate circulation and increase endorphin levels’